Lessons from SpaceX: How to build the next Toyota Camry for space

In case you missed it, space is being democratized — and quickly.

Last November, from a sheep farm in New Zealand, California-based Rocket Lab launched six payloads via their “It’s Business Time” small Electron rocket.

The successful launch brings Rocket Lab one step closer to their goal of “super-frequent small payload deliveries.”

Indeed, one of the satellites on board was built by high school students from Irvine, Calif.’s CubeSat STEM program.

But it’s not just students and hobbyists in their garages toying with Estes model rockets anymore. The new space economy is here, and it’s here because of very recent advances in launch, reusable propulsion and small satellite technologies. This renewed “Right Stuff” dynamism has startups chasing the next Cream Soda computer, which just might become an Apple Inc. space equivalent.

The visionary future for the space economy will be driven by new mass-market technologies and manufactured on a large scale.

Most people would agree that it was largely SpaceX that paved the way for this new era. But what did SpaceX get right, and what are some of the unmet opportunities other ventures are beginning to address?

SpaceX and the blueprint

As one would imagine, there are substantial expenses and manufacturing constraints behind the scenes of large rocket launches.

According to Forbes, each SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket costs $50 million. Compare that now to the Electron that Rocket Lab just launched, which costs $5.7 million.

For a short time with the Falcon 1, the company delved into developing smaller rockets that could lift up to 1,500 pounds. The opportunity to corner the market was there a decade ago, but SpaceX abandoned that program in favor of rockets with heavier payloads.

One of the companies picking up where SpaceX leaves off is Vector, whose CEO Jim Cantrell worked with Musk in the early days of the company. However, Cantrell acknowledges that “Elon and SpaceX have lowered the cost of building these rockets by at least 50 times what the government’s done.”

In SpaceX’s current state, the sheer number of different components and extensive design iterations make their large rocket development much too complex to be mass manufactured.

Additionally, there is an extremely large footprint required. For example, this year, the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a 19-acre facility for SpaceX to develop its BFR rocket and spaceship system on a large parcel at the Port of Los Angeles. But don’t knock the hustle — after all, the goal of the BFR rocket is to literally colonize Mars.

The challenge is that SpaceX’s facility size, operational requirements and lack of portability don’t address the automation needed for the emerging smallsat and renewable propulsion market, whose leaders envision the equivalent of a food truck being stationed at a customer’s headquarters, cranking out spacetech products in real time.

NASA defines smallsats as satellites of low mass that can vary in shape and size and are less than 180 kilograms, which is about the size of a large refrigerator. By comparison, the satellites designed for megaconstellations and currently being used by constellation explorers OneWeb and SpaceX have been reported to vary from 110 kilograms up to 6 metric tons, the size of a city bus.

Automation is mainly about improving process [repetition], avoiding human error and making manufacturing easy and fast, so you have the right take time. — Eric de Saintignon, COO, OneWeb, in reference to time between production starts.

In order to achieve their larger goal of making interplanetary space travel more affordable, SpaceX had to embark upon the design, manufacturing and assembly of a next-gen rocket. With decades-old Space Shuttle technologies still in use by NASA, this required an inordinate amount of R&D — in both engineering and manufacturing.

Beginning in 2002, SpaceX would go on to streamline the rocket manufacturing efficiency process, identify cost-saving strategies and trim the timeline for delivery. It got better every time, and that was the goal, as Elon Musk opined in 2014: “you’re really left with one key parameter against which technology improvements must be judged, and that’s cost.”

SpaceX also established component sourcing not reliant on third-party manufacturers. Between 80-90 percent of SpaceX rocket materials are manufactured in-house, a key move to reduce lead time. The use of a Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) in the hangar of Cape Canaveral’s 39A launch pad assembles components manufactured at their Hawthorne, Calif. factory, minimizing unnecessary travel and ensuring quality control.

With their first re-flight occurring in 2017, another important area SpaceX innovated within was developing the first reusable launch system. The science behind these technologies is being simplified by smaller reusable and electric propulsion companies.

What’s in store next for satellite propulsion: the engine of the space economy

The latest figure circulated by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation was that the global space economy (both private industry revenues and government budgets) is upwards of $345 billion, and growing rapidly. Of this aggregation, more than 76 percent of the capital was the revenue generated by public and private companies.

The FCC also estimates that in the next five years, 8,811 satellites will be launched, of which 60 percent will be from the smallsat category.

Lowering the costs and manufacturing process of both constellations and propulsion technologies will bring a handful of new entrants into the fold. Their goals are concrete: simple, scalable and affordable new products, but high-performance nonetheless.

And yes, utilizing these Toyota Camry-type efficiencies will mean significant ROI for launch, reusable propulsion and small satellite manufacturing companies and investors.

By continually resourcing best practices from wholesale industries like automotive, medical and consumer electronics, these new private entrants will create low-cost and scalable technologies that will be the catalysts for humanity’s future in space.